I have a confession to make. I tend to avoid books with characters who are defined by their religion. It has a lot more to do with my own relationship with religion than with the books or the characters. So when this book came out, I didn’t really notice it. Then I read a few reviews, including my friend Jules’, and got curious enough that when I had the opportunity to review, I decided to give it a go. Good decision there, Jude.
In this first book in a new trilogy, the United States has split into two countries, polar opposites: the God Fearing States (GFS) in the South and the United Progressive Regions (UPR) in the North. Judith and Jeffrey are Orthodox Jews living in the GFS, both with secrets. Through a pen pal program, Jeffrey is matched with Dani, another teenager in the much freer and technology-advanced UPR. Judith, Jeffrey, and their friends worry about the rise of anti-Semitism and the unwillingness of their leaders to fight it, in a country that is supposedly all about religious freedom, but in which some religions are clearly valued over others. With Dani’s help, they start organizing.
The world Rizzo describes feels terrifyingly familiar for a dystopia, with references to the Nazis, allusions to Trump’s followers, and everything that proves how easy it is for the world, for democracies, to tip over the edge.
The world-building might feel overwhelming at first (the two nations, the importance of religion and cultural habits) but it’s very well-done and once I got the hang of it, the immersion was complete.
The characters are the best part. Most of them are teenagers and the author conveyed the uncertainty of that transitional age really well. Judith for example is gifted (she’s the papercutter of the title and the descriptions of her art made me want to see it for real because what I imagined is beautiful, and that’s only one of her gifts, the other one brings a slight paranormal twist) and gentle and very much still growing. Jeffrey is at once cynical and sweet, coming into his own as a gay teen in an oppressive environment. Dani is free and smart and proudly queer. Each and every character brings something to the story and even the smallest parts are fleshed out.
All in all, I enjoyed this story a lot more than I expected. It has undeniable first-book-in-a-series feels, and I’m left wanting more, which is a very good thing. I hope we won’t have too long to wait till the next book.